Humans, Nukes and Risk Assessment: A Dangerous Mix

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Jiji / AFP / Getty Images

Workers spray water to cool down the spent nuclear fuel in reactor No. 4 at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power planty, March 22, 2011.

An accident at a nuclear power plant is a little bit like driving your car over a cliff. The odds of it actually occurring are not high — what with all the guard rails and traffic laws and simple common sense keeping you safe. But if it does happen, you're in very, very deep trouble.

Of all the varieties of risk humans assess poorly, it's that kind — the improbable but disastrous — that flummoxes us the most. Even during the peak of the AIDS crisis, the odds of anyone outside of the high risk pools actually contracting the virus were comparatively low, but we reacted with hysteria and confusion and bias all the same. The same was true of mad cow disease (remember that?), and the same continues to be true of real but still manageable emergencies like the H1N1 flu epidemic of 2009.

The George W. Bush administration famously enunciated what it called "the 1% doctrine," the idea that even a 1% risk of an attack by terrorists or weapons of mass destruction would be treated as a 100% certainty, simply cause of the enormous potential cost of inaction. But there's a price for rash, wongheaded action too — in lives, treasure, global credibility — and we paid it after the rush to war in Iraq in 2003.

The same fallible balancing of risks and probabilities is going on again, as countries around the world watch events unfolding in Fukushima and wonder just what the danger is of a similar disaster striking their own nuclear power plants and just what they should do to prevent it. In the U.S., with 104 active reactors — the most in the world by a large margin — the question is particularly pressing.

The truth of the nuclear equation is, in many ways, less scary than the headlines would make it seem. The reactors we have online provide 20% of the power we consume — no small thing — and while we have not built any new plants since the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, we haven't had any accidents even remotely like it either. Could the airline industry or the space shuttle program boast the same kind of safety record? The relative safety of America's nuke plants is a credit to strict rules and good oversight — both mostly supplied by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) — so credit should be given where it's due.

But so should criticism. The NRC's response to Fukushima has been brisk and candid concerning events on the ground half a world away. It was NRC chief Gregory Jaczko who was the first to reveal that the coolant pool in reactor 4 had likely lost all its water — a very dangerous development and one the Japanese themselves had been dissembling about for a while. But the same American watchdogs have been more dilatory about stateside reactors. The NRC is set to vote on a 90-day review of the health of America's entire nuclear grid, which is better than not conducting such a review. But it also has the feel of mere bureaucratic due diligence about it — as NRC spokespeople themselves have made clear.

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